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Conditions for Refugees in Liberia Worsening, UN Refugee Agency Says

Humanitarian conditions are deteriorating because of intensified fighting in Liberia. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees is appealing to rebel and Liberian government forces to grant safe passage for thousands of refugees and displaced people caught up in the fighting.

U.N. High Commissioner Ruud Lubbers said he is very concerned about the worsening situation in Liberia. Reports say tens of thousands of people have fled to neighboring countries to escape the fighting between rebel and government forces. And thousands of others who haven't fled are hiding in the bush, urgently in need of help.

Mr. Lubbers has called on rebel and government forces to allow humanitarian workers safe access to conflict zones so they can reach those in need.

UNHCR spokesman Ron Redmond said, as matters now stand, the intensity of the fighting has made it all but impossible for aid workers to deliver aid. "The staff now are pretty much concentrated in Monrovia because we cannot get into these regions. It is too dangerous. It is a very, very difficult place for the United Nations to work. We are basically having to regroup in Monrovia and, hopefully, the high commissioner's appeal for safe passage for the desperate refugees and displaced civilians and for safe access to aid agencies will bring some results," he said.

He said about 40,000 Liberian refugees have fled to Sierra Leone since the beginning of the year because of the fighting. Another 37,000 have gone to Ivory Coast, Guinea and Ghana. In addition, several thousand Sierra Leoneans who had taken refuge in Liberia have returned to their country.

Mr. Redmond said there are an estimated 35,000 Sierra Leonean refugees clustered in five camps around the capital, Monrovia and they are desperate to go home.

He said that since the only road to Sierra Leone is closed, the UNHCR is looking at the possibility of transporting the refugees home by sea or air. However, Mr. Redmond adds that, even when the Sierra Leoneans return home, their problems are far from over.

"The other problem is that in Sierra Leone itself, the infrastructure to help people is pretty fragile because Sierra Leone itself, of course, is coming out of a decade of turmoil and war. And the UNHCR is struggling to cope with returning Sierra Leoneans, not just from Liberia, but also tens of thousands coming back from Guinea as well," Mr. Redmond said.

He warned that unless something is done, the fighting in Liberia has the potential to destabilize not just Liberia but other countries in West Africa.